Defined by its towering granite cliffs, giant sequoia groves, and plunging waterfalls, Yosemite National Park is a natural oasis just 155 miles (249 kilometers) east of San Francisco. The four-hour drive makes for a great road trip—especially when you consider the convenience of a car in getting around the park itself. While having your own transport is handy when zipping around to the different viewpoints in Yosemite (some hours away from each other), sticking exclusively to public transportation is also an option with the park's free shuttle. In fact, you can travel all the way from San Francisco on planes, buses, and trains without ever having to get behind a wheel yourself. Be cautious, no matter how you arrive, for how winter road closures within and around Yosemite National Park might affect your travels.
|Bus||6 hours, 30 minutes||from $25||Traveling without a car|
|Train + Bus||7 hours||from $13||Minding a budget|
|Plane + Car||3 hours||from $39||Arriving on a time crunch|
|Car||4 hours||191 miles (307 kilometers)||Exploring the area|
What Is the Cheapest Way to Get From San Francisco to Yosemite National Park?
The cheapest way to get from San Francisco to Yosemite is by a series of buses and a train. First, you can take the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train from Civic Center/UN Plaza Station to Dublin/Pleasanton Station, a 50-minute ride that costs about $7.10. From there, you can walk to the Iron Horse Parkway bus stop and catch the SmaRT BART Commuter bus to Roger K. Fall Transit Center ($2) two hours away. Merced County Transit's public bus will pick you up from the Roger K. Fall Transit Center and drop you off at Merced Transpo bus stop (a one-hour ride), where you can get the final Yosemite Area Regional Transportation (YARTS) bus two hours and 45 minutes to Yosemite Valley Visitor Center. Altogether, the trip requires three transfers, takes about seven hours (not including waiting times for buses), and costs between $13 and $23. It may be the cheapest way to get from San Francisco to Yosemite, but it's certainly one of the most exhausting.
What Is the Fastest Way to Get From San Francisco to Yosemite National Park?
The fastest way to get to Yosemite from San Francisco is to fly. Yosemite's nearest commercial airports are in Fresno (Fresno Yosemite International Airport) and Merced (Merced Regional Airport—the closest to the park), but both are small. Sometimes, you can snag a cheap return flight to Merced from Oakland International Airport, but the drive from Merced to Yosemite Valley is two hours long (on top of the 45-minute flight). The YARTS bus, which stops at the airport, can also take you all the way to Yosemite Valley if you don't mind a three-hour bus journey. However, when you consider the time it takes to actually commute to the airport, check a bag, go through security, and travel by ground on the other side, flying is about as time-consuming as driving the entire distance.
More frequent flight schedules are available for airports in Sacramento and Reno, Nevada, but during the winter—when Tioga Pass is blocked with snow for months—the park entrance that's nearest to Reno is closed.
How Long Does It Take to Drive?
The quickest driving route between San Francisco and Yosemite takes about four hours. Interstate 80 will lead you into Oakland, where you can merge onto 580 East for 45 miles (72 kilometers), then State Route 120. This scenic route passes through fruit and almond orchards, small agricultural towns, and ranches in the rolling foothills before ascending sharply up the Priest Grade to Big Oak Flat and the old gold mining town of Groveland. You'll get impressive views of Lake Don Pedro, the Stanislaus National Forest, and the Tuolumne River Canyon, too.
It's always a good idea to check the CalTrans website (or national park alerts) for current road conditions, seeing as many roads in the area are closed during winter. The Big Oak Flat Entrance—one of five—is open year-round. Oakdale is the largest town east of Highway 99, so stop here for groceries to avoid paying a fortune at the Village Store. The nearest gas pumps to Yosemite Valley are open year-round inside the park at Wawona (45 minutes south of the valley on Wawona Road) and Crane Flat (30 minutes northwest on Big Oak Flat Road). In the summer, gasoline is available at Tuolumne Meadows on Tioga Road, too.
Is There a Bus That Goes From San Francisco to Yosemite National Park?
Besides private bus tour companies—such as Gray Line and Viator—that offer day trips to the park from San Francisco, there's no single bus that runs the route directly. You can, however, get by with only transferring once if you take a Greyhound bus to Merced ($20, three hours and 45 minutes), then transfer onto the YARTS bus ($5 to $10, two hours and 45 minutes), which will take you all the way to the visitor center. The entire journey takes six and a half hours, not including bus wait times.
When Is the Best Time to Travel to Yosemite National Park?
The best time to travel to Yosemite is during May and September, when most things in the park are open (not all things: Tioga Pass sometimes isn't clear enough to open until July and closes in November), but summer crowds aren't at their peak. June through August, you can expect major crowds on the trails and in the campsites, not to mention traffic coming into the park. Winter in Yosemite National Park, while beautiful, is a different experience entirely. Many hiking trails, roads, viewpoints, and campgrounds are closed for the season and there aren't many people around. Driving into the park during winter—where the Sierra Nevada range begins—can be treacherous.
What’s the Most Scenic Route to Yosemite National Park?
Highway 140—as opposed to the most direct route, 120—is by far the most scenic drive into the park and the best way to go if you’re visiting for the first time. It’s open most of the time and passes through the towns of Mariposa and Fish Camp. It’s also a popular route for people driving to Yosemite from the San Jose area.
From Highway 99 at Merced, 140 passes through open ranch land, into the wooded foothills, and through the old mining town of Mariposa, which has an old-fashioned main street with many cute places to eat. Continuing uphill through Midpines, the road parallels the Merced River for about 30 miles (48 kilometers). In spring, redbud trees sprout magenta-colored blooms along its banks and the river rises high enough to accommodate whitewater rafters, but it’s a pretty drive in any season. The road enters the park via Arch Rock.
Can I Use Public Transportation to Travel From the Airport?
At Merced Regional Airport, you can take the YARTS bus all the way into Yosemite Valley. Otherwise, you can catch the Merced County Bus, a Greyhound, or the Amtrak, but none of those go into the park.
What Is There to Do in Yosemite National Park?
Yosemite National Park is a nature lover's paradise. There are miles upon miles of trails, among them the famous Bridalveil Fall Trail, Lower Yosemite Fall Trail, and the strenuous Half Dome Trail, which requires a permit to hike. Half Dome and El Capitan are the two world-recognized granite walls that make up that iconic Yosemite scene. As far as waterfalls, the park is home to dozens, including one of the world's tallest: Yosemite Falls. There are 13 campgrounds in which to lounge and the Merced River in which to float on a hot day. For the real adventurer, there are plenty of opportunities for a thrill, including rock climbing, zip lining, and rafting tours.